Mass. police to use beanbag guns to combat violence

By Brian Lee, Telegram & Gazette Staff
Telegram & Gazette
Copyright 2006 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

SOUTHBRIDGE- On May 1, 1993, a Dudley man shocked this community when he stood on a downtown sidewalk, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. He later died from his injuries.

Police Chief Daniel R. Charette reflected on that very public suicide recently as he talked about the range of force that police can use in dealing with violence.

One option is a stun gun, which the chief said he doesn't believe in. But instead, the Southbridge police are turning to "beanbag" shotguns, the ammunition essentially a pellet-filled cloth sack that's shaped like an octopus.

The special shotguns are designated "less-lethal" munitions, intended to cause blunt trauma and thereby disarm people in domestic, suicide or even hostage situations.

During November, the entire department will be trained in these techniques, said Sgt. John J. Mulcahy.

The sergeant will lead the training, and subsequently, two line officers will be armed with the weapons, increasing from one to three the number of less-lethal weapons on the streets at all times.

Currently, one of these shotguns stays in a supervisor's cruiser, Sgt. Mulcahy said.

The weapon could actually kill someone, the sergeant said.

In 2004, a so-called non-lethal weapon killed a college student at an out-of-control Red Sox playoff victory celebration when she was struck in the eye.

But Sgt. Mulcahy said that officers are trained to fire at a major muscular area, where the projectile may cause next-day bruising or perhaps a fracture.

Sgt. Mulcahy has taught less-lethal courses around the country since 1999, for ammunition manufacturer Armor Holdings Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla.

The sergeant equates its use to CPR, when an unconscious person's ribs could get broken from impact.

He said aiming at a major muscular area is a departure from routine police training, in which officers are taught to aim at a suspect's center mass or sternum area.

Chief Charette said the weapons are a "good viable alternative to deadly force."

That appeared to be the case during a domestic situation in East Brookfield in August. Authorities shot a Spencer man with the weapon after he had cut himself during a standoff and held them at bay. The man later pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon and threatening to commit murder.

Sgt. Mulcahy said the weapon won't come out of a cruiser unless there are at least two officers present.

In Southbridge, since the police got the guns about two years ago, they have been brought out about 10 to 12 times, but a shot has not yet been fired, the sergeant said.In Sturbridge, police first bought their special weapons, which are painted fluorescent orange so that officers won't mistakenly grab a regular shotgun, five years ago.

But they didn't fire one until Oct. 8, 2004, when two patrolmen used it to disarm an emotionally disturbed man wielding a knife at the Streeter Beach boat ramp off Route 20, near the Brimfield Dam. The man told the policemen that they would have to kill him, reports indicate.

The officers, Paul Newsham and Joseph Lombardi, were later commended for their work.

The weapon has also been used to shoo wild animals back into their habitat. Three years ago in Spencer, state environmental police shot rounds at an approximately 125-pound black bear cub that had wandered into residential neighborhoods. However, the bear re-emerged soon afterward, reports indicate.

In Southbridge, the additional weapons were purchased two months ago from budget funds, Sgt. Mulcahy said.

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